Jill Lepore Letters
New York Burning
US History, Tuesday and Thursday, 1:00-2:25PM
February 15, 2012
February 22, 1993
Dear Dr. James Thompson,
It has been entirely to long since we have had a chance to catch up. I hope that you and your wife are doing well. How is the new job with The New-York Historical Society going? I hope it brings you as much fulfillment as your teaching job did. I can’t explain in words what a massive influence you had when you were my professor. Anyways, I wanted to write you and talk about my book..
I am pleased to be writing you again to fill you in on how my research is going and to get your assistance as a sounding board for details that I think may shed some light on the mental state of those being prosecuted after the fires. I have had time to thoroughly study and review the copy of the Plan for City Hall, that David Grim illustrated to show how City Hall in New York looked at the time of the legal proceedings (Stone, Page 65, Picture, The New-York Historical Society). Again, let me take this time to tell you thanks for the reference material. It is amazing that you have access to documents of this caliber and are willing to spend your time helping me compile data for my book. I wanted to get a good look at how the basement, or in this case the detainment facility or dungeon, was constructed. I was curious how all of the slaves that were on trial were able to talk to each other about their upcoming testimonies as some of my sources have revealed. Obviously, modern day confinement has a vast amount of history to look at when undergoing the planning and construction phases of new projects. Back when this building was constructed, I would have thought that the individuals in power would have done more to separate the arrestees prior to their trials to ensure they could not compare stories to make them match. That is not what I have found. It was a rather basic design named the “Great Gaol,” or simply an open floor plan (Stone, Page 66. #1, History). It talked about how anyone walking by City Hall at night could here the whistling that the lookouts would use as notification for a passer by. I think that the original planners for this building had a very negative view of how the slaves could think and conspire on their own behalf. I think that they must have thought that the slaves were to barbaric and also to uneducated to truly formulate a plot or to require separation by themselves. I think this turned to bite them in the end. I mean it wasn’t long after the fires that they saw exactly how cunning the slaves could be. Or maybe the planners decided that it didn’t matter if the slaves conversed since they would have no place in their own defense. In those days who would listen to a slave? The courts were a place for wealthy white men to get together, a social club if you will. It didn’t matter what the slaves said because they were merely property. If they were sentenced to death and the sentence was not pardoned, the owners of the slaves would lose money but I don’t think that the majority would have cared about the actual person. I am sure that there are exceptions to every rule though. These ideas have brought up new questions about why the slaves did not escape during their pre-trial confinement. I think I need to do more research to see what it was that kept them inside. Maybe they had hired guards to stand watch over the building. Maybe the punishment would be made even worse if they attempted to flee and were caught.
Anyway, that is where my thoughts have gone at this point. I truly feel that there has to be more research done into what the slaves experienced from their own perspective. This could prove to be very difficult though since the majority of the slaves could not read or write. And I am quite sure that an educated white was not going to take the time to ask how the slaves were feeling and then write it down...
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